The TWU basketball team had its share of peaks and valleys this season. After all was said and done, the Pioneers felt they had done enough to get themselves into the NCAA South Central Region tournament.
With a league record of 10-6, they finished tied for second place in the Lone Star Conference — the highest TWU has ever finished — with Tarleton State, which was ranked third in the region heading into the LSC tournament.
After the Pioneers defeated Texas A&M-Kingsville in the opening round of the tournament before losing to Tarleton in the semifinals, they felt like they had positioned themselves well enough to hold on to their No. 8 regional ranking.
However, with St. Edward’s winning the Heartland Conference tournament and earning the eighth spot in the regional tournament, No. 7 Fort Lewis, No. 8 TWU and No. 9 Midwestern State were left jockeying for the final two spots.
Despite TWU placing higher in the LSC with Midwestern State holding a 9-7 conference record, the Mustangs earned the tournament nod that left the Pioneers sitting on the outside looking in.
“Every team being considered is a good team, and we all want to be there,” TWU coach Beth Jillson said. “We all probably deserved to be there. I was disappointed we didn’t get in. It’s tough when you don’t have the numbers in front of you to see.”
The NCAA committee has a list of deciding factors that include the last 10 games of the schedule, in-region games, bad losses, head-to-head marks and strength of schedule.
The Pioneers played one of their toughest schedules in recent history to beef up their regional ranking, facing Montana State Billings, Western Washington and St. Mary’s — all regional qualifiers.
When the Pioneers made the regional tournament in the 2010-11 season, they needed to win the LSC tournament to advance, as their No. 10 regional ranking wasn’t good enough to get them in.
Jillson looks at the last game of the regular season — a 69-62 home loss Feb. 26 to seventh-place Texas A&M-Commerce.
“[The rankings] have worked both ways for us, but let’s not leave it in someone else’s hands,” Jillson said. “Let’s beat the teams we’re supposed to beat. Let’s beat Commerce and then we’re not in this situation.
“Our schedule was extremely tough. That’s the tough part. I scheduled an extremely hard nonconference schedule knowing that it would prepare us for the LSC but also give us points for where we stand regionally. We only lost to one team under .500 — and that was Texas A&M-Commerce — all year. We had one bad loss.”
The Pioneers will be losing four seniors: Taylor Swift, Kaitlyn Waller, Mary Kovtun and Rebekah Cluley.
Kovtun and Cluley earned LSC honors along with junior Ria Pateraki and freshman Kenesha Saygo.
“My heart hurts most for our seniors because they will never put on the Pioneer uniform again and that’s tough,” Jillson said. “Bekah was a great leader for us as well as the rest of our seniors. They were also extremely selfless and were the driving force behind our success. You have to have good leaders in place to have good chemistry and to have a good team. They all really accepted their roles well. It’s been really fun and rewarding to watch the team grow together.”
Following a down year last season when TWU finished 5-15 in the LSC and 7-19 overall, a seven-game winning streak highlighted the Pioneers’ 2013-14 season, with a 64-59 home win over Tarleton kicking off the late-season surge.
For Cluley, the disappointment of not making the NCAA regional hurt, but this season’s turnaround made it sting even more.
“Our biggest disappointment was how well we did from last year,” Cluley said. “With there being a change, we had a seven-game win streak. We tied for second. We beat one of the top teams, and some of the other teams that made it didn’t. Either way, we were grateful for everything we had this season.”
The Pioneers met for a watch party of the regional tournament selection show March 7, and Cluley had a realization.
“I was talking to a few of the people from last year, and we would have never imagined being at a watch party last year,” Cluley said. “We kind of talked about it, and we knew either way that we’d be proud of ourselves. We loved each other. This team was one of the best I’ve ever been on.
“Everything we accomplished and knowing the difference from last year and this year, I think it’s going to help everybody else that’s been there the past two years next season.”
Amidst the confusion and sadness of being left out of the regional, one point the team could agree on centered upon taking control of the situation — something next year’s Pioneers will be using as a driving force to get the NCAA tournament.
“When we were at the watch party, everybody from a freshman to a senior stood up and said something to each other,” Cluley said. “Our biggest thing was don’t let this feeling happen again next year. Don’t put it into chance. Don’t put it into the hands of other people. If we would have known that Tarleton would have been our last game, we would have played differently. We would have given it everything we had.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.